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Content, Writing and Copyright Forum

Overcoming Writers Block

 11:42 pm on Aug 7, 2002 (gmt 0)

I've been struggling with something since around the Fall holidays that's commonly known as "Writers Block." I have no idea how it started, and it'll go away momentarily or for a short period of time, but then it's back again. In trying to analyze it, it seems to fall into three categories:

1. Blank page stare
The creative idea or knowledge of the project or goal is there, but when looking at the piece of paper or having the program open with the keyboard ready, the mind seems to freeze. It just seems impossible to find the words to start.

2. Putting it all together
Research may be done if that's what the project takes, notes may have been jotted down or written if it's some creative idea; maybe even an outline has been written. But it just seems that it's not getting pulled together enough to get it properly done.

3. Polishing it off into the finished product
The basic elements may be there, with a beginning a middle and an ending, but it's not right yet. It needs editing and after multiple tries, it still just doesn't seem right. There's either too much, not enough, or what's there just doesn't seem to be saying the right thing in the right way.

I know this isn't uncommon, so there must be others experiencing it and others who might have gone through it and found ways to get through it.

Does anyone have any insight into this, or any tips, tricks or suggestions for overcoming it?



 11:47 pm on Aug 7, 2002 (gmt 0)

Ever try a puzzle from the outer edges towards the center?

Maybe you need to start from the end and work your way back... Try thinking about what your message will ultimately communicate and piece together the foundation from there... I don't know if this applies to your project, but I know from a design standpoint, it's helpful to worry about the details until last.


 11:50 pm on Aug 7, 2002 (gmt 0)

When this happens to me I try to take a break and do something else for a while. I will go to lunch, play a game, read WebmasterWorld, etc. until I get that hint of inspiration. Also something else I have found that works well is just spend some time surfing around the net. Many times something will catch my eye that will give me the idea I need to get a project started.


 11:55 pm on Aug 7, 2002 (gmt 0)

I get exactly this.. and for long enough periods of time it's just about my standard operating mode.

I find that snatches of what I want flash through my mind at the oddest moments, but when I sit down to actually work.. *POOF* gonesville. It's not just content either.. it's code, style issues, SEO... the whole lot.

The result is I carry a notebook and pen with me CONSTANTLY (dressing in clothes with pockets, cause if I have to go to another room to get the notebook the phrase or idea is gone)... or a dictaphone if I'm at home and it doesn't matter if I sound like a lunatic (as opposed to just looking like one with the notebook).

When I can't write anything, I transcribe those notes onto the computer.. often that gives me enough of a kickstart to get going.


 3:13 am on Aug 8, 2002 (gmt 0)

Marcia, was this preceded by either a lengthy period of time where you pulled off some amazing stretches of work, even beyond your expectation? ...and/or secondly a prolonged period of time where your sleep pattern was substantially different?

I believe that those are the factors that contribute to what's called writer's block, but can apply to any endeavour where no matter the effort the mind goes into neutral.

I've had this happen in writing code, amazing stretches of day and night coding for a number of years, than bammo! I couldn't even begin the first line of code, the harder I tried the more that energy was transformed into repelling the work at hand not getting it started or done.

It then occurred to me that these activities are not that different from atheletic events and training. In sports these are well known principles, and I had been exposed to them through competition and training;

1)Alternate a hard day with an easy day to allow recovery and keep interest high
2)Intersperse some different activities to prevent overuse injuries
3)Get more rest during tough workout sessions and heavy training, even though your body is charged up and feels like it can do more not less.
4)When a number of superior performances have been achieved, you have peaked, an easier work cycle is in order to gradually reduce peak level of fitness so that the cycle can be repeated. To ignore this cycle is to court disaster, perhaps another peak performance, some good training sessions and then bamm! All performance is lost, worse still is that the performance level is so reduced as to be below even a person of low fitness. The tendency is to work harder to regain the lost performance, but the cure demands just the opposite. This is also called burn out.

IMO and from my own experience these cycles are biological, it is the way the body (and I've since come to believe) the mind work, apply stress and they get stronger, apply too much over too long a period with not enough recovery time and we court disaster. The solution is not to work harder or try harder, but to relax and try less. Do some other things, and when you really feel the call to write or work resist it a few times, it means the rest is helping, and although it is a common malady of those working with code, or the web, and computing in general, don't ignore sleep it's part of the recovery formula.

Athletes that ignore these symptoms and push harder dspite a general malaise and poor performance, can go into a prolonged stage of stale performance lasting months or even years. I now think that those who use their mind in a similar fashion to how an athlete uses his/her body are subject to the same condition, and likely the same fate if ignored.

FWIW My .02


 4:56 am on Aug 8, 2002 (gmt 0)

Does anyone have any insight into this, or any tips, tricks or suggestions for overcoming it?

I used to get writers block. I don't any more.

The way I overcame it was to start writing - write anything - even if it's nonsense. The sheer act of engaging in the process without self censorship will kick start the patterns your brain needs to make the appropriate connections.

Give it a try...


 5:41 am on Aug 8, 2002 (gmt 0)

Hi Marcia

Seeing as we have 3 categories, let's take them separately:

1. Blank page stare
The creative idea or knowledge of the project or goal is there, but when looking at the piece of paper or having the program open with the keyboard ready, the mind seems to freeze. It just seems impossible to find the words to start.

Here's one I use if I absolutely have to get it done, but can't start. Just write total crap. Write about the project as if you were writing a brief (or if it's copy, just write the copy), but as if there were no rules. It's even better if you can include rude words (naughty huh?) Ths trick is to make yourself laugh. For me, that often creates a creative 'leap', stops me being so tense about it and lets the juices flow.

If that doesn't work, one shot of tequila followed by an espresso often does the trick ;)

2. Putting it all together
Research may be done if that's what the project takes, notes may have been jotted down or written if it's some creative idea; maybe even an outline has been written. But it just seems that it's not getting pulled together enough to get it properly done.

Have you tried representing it graphically? Getting some flip chart paper, putting it on the floor and going mad with some fat coloured pens can help with perspective and motivation.

I'd also try talking aloud to myself ( I'm starting to regret this - am I coming across as insane?) I discuss the project with myself. I also find that deadlines are incredibly important for my motivation, so I'll try and ensure I promise something to someone connected with the project (however vaguely) to put pressure on myself.

3. Polishing it off into the finished product
The basic elements may be there, with a beginning a middle and an ending, but it's not right yet. It needs editing and after multiple tries, it still just doesn't seem right. There's either too much, not enough, or what's there just doesn't seem to be saying the right thing in the right way.

Ooof, the nastiest till last eh? All that work and it's still not right. OK, well, for me, some physical exercise to give my brain a break and take my mind off it, followed by, yep you guessed it, a large shot of caffeine and 2 hours at least away from any distraction. (My wife knows the look ;) )

My other trick for this sort of stuff is deep relaxation - I use self hypnosis techniques. It is increadible how your brain can 'take off' after 20 minutes of proper relaxation. Incidentally, it's well documented why as well. The brain needs about 20 minutes of 'rest' every 1.5 to 2 hours (See 'The 20 Minute Break by Ernest Rossi')

I hope some of this is helpful.

All the best



 6:11 am on Aug 8, 2002 (gmt 0)

Ah, I remember writers block. I used to suffer from it a long time ago. No longer.

What causes writers block? In my case, I've found a few causes.

The idiots of the world - Occasionally I'll write something and get a negative comment. In the past when I was in my twenties (seems like a different lifetime now) this would stop me cold. I'd get a comment like "this isn't that great" or "you should change your article thusly..." and bam, I would stop writing for weeks or months.

Some other failure in life - I've found that when I was failing somewhere else in life I would stop writing. You know, hard times at work, lost love, that kind of thing. When life seemed to hit me paraticularly hard, I would find that I didn't feel like writing at all.

Something I didn't understand - Sometimes I would want to write an article but I would find myself stopped cold. Later, I would often discover that I didn't understand something, some critical piece of information. Once I filled in that gap, I started writing again.

Illness - Something about throwing up just makes it difficult to write ...

Too much introversion - I've found that I have to extrovert occasionally in order to be able to introvert enough to write. Does that make sense? On those occasions where I could not get out, my writing suffered.

What are the solutions?

Write something every single day - I have taken a few writing classes, and one common denominator (and perhaps the only meaningful information from any of them) was so simple as to defy imagination. Simply write something every single day.

I write one article, completely polished and ready for publication, every single day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Sometimes I write two or three articles in a day.

It really doesn't matter what I write, although I usually write about the internet or computers. But occasionally I write other things, including pages for my autobiography or even a love letter to the wife.

Put aside time to write - I have set aside "writing time", two hours every single night, in which I isolate myself in my office at home and write my heart out. My wife respects my introversion during this time as it allows me to do one of the things that I love the most: communicate ideas in written form.

Fill in any missing blanks - If I find that I am having trouble explaining something in writing or the words just don't flow, I look around and see if there is something about it that I do not fully understand. That often works.

Ignore the idiots of the world - There sure seem to be a lot of jerks sometimes. However, I don't need to allow some babbling idiots ruin my writing. Just because someone does not like something does not mean anything except they didn't like it...

I do not ask for criticism - I never ask anyone to criticize my works, ever. I do not ask for site reviews of my websites, I don't submit my works for review. Why not? I am not interested in other people's silly opinions about my works. I know I am a good writer, a excellent webmaster and a great manager. I don't need anyone to tell me how good I am, and I certainly don't need anyone to point out my faults.

Changing styles - If I have trouble starting a piece and I'm sure I understand what I'm writing about, I often change the style. I usually write in a very conversational tone, which seems to communicate well to people. However, I will occasionally change to humorous or very serious or whatever. I've found these changes tend to blow away writers block like dynamite.

Well, that's all I can think of right now. Hope it helps.

Richard Lowe


 6:52 am on Aug 8, 2002 (gmt 0)

I find if I've reached a creative impasse, doing something active outdoors will often distract me enough that the brain will start to slot things into place. Some of my best insights, articles or business ideas have come to me on a chairlift or hiking up a mountain.


 6:54 am on Aug 8, 2002 (gmt 0)

Marcia I have just gotten over the hump from a prolonged "block". I believe it was a couple of things in combination, and interestingly enough, the catalyst was this forum.

Over the the past few months I had developed a habit of spending a lot of time on this forum, especially when I just could not progress with my writing, and I was too tired of doing research. It had become a crutch (a good one). But then I went and let my political animal out of its cage, and got a reprimand from Brett (fully justified). I was furious with myself (and a little ashamed), so I stayed away from WW for awhile (you've all probably noticed how much more pleasent it has been around here lately), and instead visited a couple of forums dealing the subjects of my writing.

Soon I was contributing to these forums, writing about the same things that I had the block on. Well it worked. I'm back to writing and researching with a new enthusiasm.

So here is the formula: First write some nasty politcal stuff on one of the threads here at WW, then after Brett threatens to permanently terminate your privaleges at WW, and you're kicking yourself in the butt, take a break from here and go answer questions and contribute to some forums about the topics you are stuck on. Worked for me. :)


 12:55 pm on Aug 8, 2002 (gmt 0)

Hmmm, I've been writing a 400-word piece over the last 2 days (and keeping the w/count down is a pain, isn't it?). I find I get the best work using an iterative process. I write *something*, and no matter how much I hate it, or it doesn't say what I want, I just plough on.

Then I pass it around to others, family, friends, work colleagues, anyone. They comment on a bit here and a bit there, and regardless of whether they understand the actual content (often they don't) they pick up on style or grammar mistakes. Sometimes I disagree, and am forced to defend what I have written, why I have used that word, or this construction. This often sparks the inspiration I need to get it "just so".

I find that writing that comes from that synthetic process is more compact, more lively and contains better expressed ideas, presented in a more logical manner.


 1:28 pm on Aug 8, 2002 (gmt 0)

For me - a deadline and post-it notes. Otherwise I waste lots of time doing stupid things.

As an ex-press photographer I'm well aware of the need for speed and deadlines - and when I knew things had to be done - I did it.

But I'm a real "last minute" kinda person. So I give myself a deadline on a post-it note and stick it on my monitor.

You could try the same. I must write something, even if it feels like utter gibberish, by 4:00pm today. Etc Etc.

Eventually things start to flow and soon you won't be looking back.

Erm, hold on - what am I doing on here again.. I have work to do and my deadline to finish the report is 10 minutes away! ;)


 3:29 pm on Aug 8, 2002 (gmt 0)

While he was writing East of Eden, John Steinbeck kept a daily journal in which he wrote each day as a warm up exercise before getting down to business.

In the journal, which was published after his death (A Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letter), he writes a considerable amount about overcoming mood swings which effected his own enthusiasm for writing. For anyone who writes, the firsthand look into his thoughts, which he never intended to be seen by anyone except his publisher, it is a fascinating peek and changed my personal approach to writing a great deal.

Good luck, Marcia.


 4:26 pm on Aug 8, 2002 (gmt 0)

Excellent replies - really helpful!

The dreaded block is all the more painful if you work on your own and/or from home and the cat is not much of a conversationalist!


 5:58 pm on Aug 8, 2002 (gmt 0)

My writer's block comes more from the fact that I feel overwhelmed. "Omygosh, there's too much to do and so I don't know where to start!"

Here's how I overcome these things.

1. Blank page stare

First: Write something, anything. A lot of times my "blank page stare" comes from the fact that I'm not sure how to begin. I find that I have an easier time of things if I at least have something to edit - even if whatever I started with never even makes it into the final version.

Second: If I just can't put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and get anything written, I'll try to write ONE sentence that summarizes what I want to write. It's amazing how quickly ten or twelve words can turn into 500 words - then I'm face with the other problem - TOO MUCH content!

2. Putting it all together

First: Describe it to someone - even the cat. "Hey, Mittens, the goals of this article are dingy dangy, bingy boingy and badda boom badda bing." It's then easy to start moving the pieces around - out loud. "Well, okay, dingy dangy is one of the goals but not the main goal - dingy dangy is actually a consequence of bingy boingy. Ah, so the primary goal of this article is such-and-so ..." I don't know why talking out loud helps, but it does.

Second: Draw a picture of it. I don't know why this works for me, but it does. I'm a pretty visual thinker. I simply sketch out the page I'm trying to write for. I'll put "________________" in for the headers and subheaders, and then rectangles where I think each paragraph of text should go. Once I see the space I have to work with, the content tends to follow pretty easily.

3. Polishing it off

My thesis advisor gave me this advice: "The sword is mightier than the pen." Meaning, it's easier to cut stuff out at the end than try and find quality filler.

So I always write more than I think is necessary - and out of all of the extra roughness, a few gems usually appear.

Good luck!


 9:24 pm on Aug 8, 2002 (gmt 0)

This is a really tiny tip, more of a coping mechanism than anything, but it can be useful. By the time I finished writing my dissertation I hated it and just couldn't write and spent most of my day making trips back and forth from the refirgerator. I came across the following:

When you're taking a break or stopping for the day, always try to stop mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, mid-thought.

Normally, we try to "wrap this up" before stopping, but this means you sit down to a totally blank slate with no primer. If you stop in the middle of something, you have a lot of seed there to get you going again.



 9:30 pm on Aug 8, 2002 (gmt 0)

Oh yeah, another thing. A couple times when I had to produce something and just couldn't get started, I've pulled out a tape recorder and just started talking. What came out was 90% garbage, but the other 10% was enough for me to pull out the kernel of a publication. I'm not sure why exactly it should be different, but perhaps it's because different brain centers are involved in speaking vs writing.

Another thing, don't be afraid if what you are writing stinks, is a repetition of something you said earlier and is completely unorginal, just keep going. Kill the voice that says "this is terrible" and keep going. You can always cut later.

Of course, that's always easier said than done. There are the Fran Leibowtz's of the world who are far better writers than any of us can dream of being, but just never overcome writers block.



 1:48 pm on Aug 9, 2002 (gmt 0)

Marcia, my form of writer's block is burnout ... from writing web pages that number in the thousands. I've been dealing with it by delegating some of the mundane stuff to a part-time college student. I still do the design and analysis and write the more complex and creative stuff. Every so often I give this individual something really exciting to write about, even though it's not an optimized web page, to stave of his boredom and to give me some great content to weave into my web site.


 7:25 pm on Aug 9, 2002 (gmt 0)


I completely sympathize and have had many bouts of writer's block myself.

I find that when I hit the wall, I need to remove myself from my work environment entirely and take a break ... as long a break as is necessary to get the creative juices flowing. Go to a pub or coffee house with a good friend or colleague and toss around some ideas back and forth. I often went with the client and told them it was for research & development purposes and that I just needed to pick their brains to get a better feel for the project.

This method has never failed me in over 30 years of writing commercially. Not only does it work (for me anyway), but the client is generally impressed that you would take the time to get closer to the project/product/whatever and their take on the whole concept.

Best of luck and hope you find your groove soon!

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